In the August 17, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

Changes in the economy and in my industry have left me jobless, and my career has become a dead end. It’s time to move on. How should I choose a new career? My problem is how to select one where I can transfer my skills. Any suggestions?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Do not look for jobs that seem to require the skills you used at your last job. That will limit you. Pick a business you want to work in and figure out what it needs. Create a list of functions and tasks to help you sort it out. Build a flowchart. This takes research and effort. No employer will do it for you. You need to figure it out, and you may have to talk to a lot of people to do this. That’s good, because the massive effort will help you to identify work that motivates you, and to weed out jobs you’re pursuing for no good reason at all.

Then, while focusing on the work, look at your most basic skills. Restructure them. Reorganize them. Draw up a simple plan showing how you will apply them in new ways (new to you) to do some aspect of the work. If you believe you can pull it off, there’s the career to pursue. (To avoid stepping into something unexpected, don’t forget Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it.)

Understanding the work helps you rearrange skills you already have to do something new—and that makes you a potent job candidate. Be realistic, but be aggressive. Drive your new-found interest until it dies, or until you get where you want to go.

(I discuss the parameters of career change in five detailed sections in the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers?)

There’s a lot of controversy about how to change careers. Some counselors advise taking aptitude and psychological tests. While those may be helpful, I think the farther from yourself you set the locus of control, the less likely you are to generate the honest self-motivation necessary to succeed. In other words, while it’s good to get help and advice, you need to figure it out yourself.

Have you changed careers? Know someone who has done it successfully? How?

What’s great about the Ask The Headhunter community is that every question is best answered by the real experiences of real people. So please pile on!


  1. Wow, the response was well put. I changed careers last when I shifted into recruiting. A VP I interviewed with opined that he thought I’d work out, but they’d have to “retool” me. I thought that a neat term and on reflection I realized I’ve retooled myself often.
    How & why? Necessity mostly, simply because I had to. This likely flies in the face of career counseling but I must have professional attention deficity syndrone or something akin to restless leg syndrone because after a decade or so I’d come across something that appealed to the gut and I’d thrust myself into a situation where I HAD to adapt and do something different. I made it work. The other reason is if I didn’t inflict change upon myself the environment did inside companies via reorgs handing me tasks I didn’t ask for or outside companies when they laid me off. When I started hitting the layoff track I was at that awkward age of over 55 and faced what Nick mentioned, this wall where my experience counted for squat.
    However…this is important..Because I developed the ultimate transitional skills of adaptability and facing the fears of moving outside of comfort zones I was equipped to change and did. Everyone sees and uses the upside of leveraging your chosen professional skills likely inside a particular industry. But there’s a downside to such fine honed focus and perfection of best practices…called a rut. You’ve not learned to challenge yourself and adapt, nor move outside of a comfort zone, so changing careers becomes heavy lifting.
    Other things to consider. For everything you get in life, you give up something. And vs Versa. Unless you’re very lucky, expect to pay some dues when you make a change. e.g. pay, venue, quality of life, it doesn’t usually come free.
    How do you do it? Just as Nick explained. look for common ground & dots to connect, pick a target, and develop your value prop/proposal.
    Your biggest obstacle is convincing someone who sees you as having almost zero experience in their business to hire you? The bad news is you have no experience. But the good news is you have no experience. You bring fresh eyes, & insights that experienced competitors can’t. They are offering the same old stuff. Add to that other dots you can connect.
    This is getting long so I’ll conclude with an example from my other perspective, the hiring recruiter who sells the hiring manager.
    We’re open minded where I work. By choice. We will consider transition skills and accept people outside our industry. We manufacture widgets for our customer. You may have no working experience in a manufacturing environment. Say you come from publishing. I want an outside salesman. You’ve done outside sales but never sold a widget in your life. I asked what many think is a useless question. Do you have a life outside of work, a hobby? Yes you restore automobiles, love to dismantle and restore engines. Bingo. dots connect.
    The only problem with this story is I had to drag this out of the person. They should have connected the dots.
    You can change careers and start afresh, but as Nick said, do your home work, be tenacious and learn to adapt

  2. @Don,
    Great post. I have changed jobs numerous times and careers once. I did my career change in my late 20’s so it wasn’t a big deal as I only had five years in the previous one. I have come to realize that I have about a five year shelf life in a particular job before I start to get restless. The last time this happened, I got caught in a mass layoff so I had to hit the pavement again and landed at my present company. I decided then that I didn’t want to work in the same industry anymore. I work in Engineering, and employers want the industry specific experience when hiring non entry level positions. Like you, I managed to re-package myself and get hired into a different industry partly because they wanted experience in my old field, but also wanted someone flexible to tackle the less glamorous tasks that needed to be done. All in all it worked out very well. In fact one of the managers just told me I would be much harder to replace than the regular engineering research staff because of my background.
    However, as you mentioned, there are dues to be paid such as learning new administrative procedures and the unwritten rules. The biggest adjustment I had to make was trading a 15 minute commute for a 75 minute one. Ouch! It took me over a year to get used to that one.

  3. The hard part of changing careers is that unless you have significant experience in your new field, prospective employers will usually not give you the time of day, since they are in the driver’s seat (or think they are). Most demand umpteen years of specific experience.

    I’ve been in IT for 47+ years and to some extent it’s been a ‘reinventing’ process simply because the field has changed so dramatically.
    I always had managers who had learned they could throw me anything and I would quickly master it and produce top-quality work. In the eyes of most managers (and all HR) what I was doing 47 years ago is not what I’m doing now.

    In my case, being past normal retirement age, their (often impossible) requirements allow them to ignore me without facing possible age-discrimination charges.

    I think part of the problem is that managers don’t realize all the talents/qualities which make up a good employee. All the qualification doesn’t matter if the employee is unreliable, unmotivated, uncommitted or inflexible and too narrowly focused. And if he/she is only in it for the money and takes no pride in a hard job well done, they don’t deserve the job.

  4. @Ray Saunders ‘The hard part of changing careers is that unless you have significant experience in your new field, prospective employers will usually not give you the time of day.’ Because they have 499 more applications and are focused on eliminating people, not hiring them. The career changer just gives them an easy excuse for rejection. This is why pursuing positions through referrals, personal contacts and informal interviews is much more productive for the career changer than responding to postings. If a relationship can be established first, certain shortcomings are more likely to be overlooked.

  5. @ Ray & Chris: Even before the economy went in the tank, many companies expected Jesus Christ to come in, walk on water, and know everything about every system in the place, from the tired old mainframe sitting on pallets in a warehouse to the CEO’s cool new watch … and handle it all for $7.25 an hour. The fact that there are now 8 million jobs lost (and hence, 8 million additional people looking for that job you want) doesn’t make it any easier.

    The fact is that American Business collectively is sitting on at least $2 trillion in cash. The question you have to answer is: Why should they spend any of it on you? The answer is of course that you can add to their horde of cash, and you can demonstrate how you and only you can do it.

  6. Hi, All

    I have had a plethora of jobs, only one career. Took test ACT test 26 years post high school scored high enough to get into major none elite universities and started “my great adventure”. At 43, college was a mystery, career development was an idea, but adventure was a rebirth of youthful, blissful ignorance about the world of employers! I am not sure how I got on the path, but this is my theory of career development for us average Joes. 1. A mentor: “my mom was a nurse, I’ll be a nurse.” “My dad was a fireman, I’ll be a fireman.” 2. A passion: “I love animals, I’ll be a vet.” 3. Bumping into a job: “I applied, yahoo, I have a job!” (The desperate employer liked me!) 4. career development: Nick or other guru of employment marketing helped me evaluate the job market, I worked on and developend my marketable skills, and my you factors to seek a fit, make a plan, and beat the rest of the pack to the door with interview skills, self-marketing skills, ability to sell myself and think outside of the box and dazzle the employer with brilliance or baffle them with BS and make it work! The one thing that I can say that has been my key to success is developing good listening skills, valadating people I meet, willingness to keep trying and searching for my niche. I am a VR counselor and the customers with disabilities I assist with “job searches or career development” are successful if they keep taking one step at a time and reach their goal by facing each challenge with an expectation that there is a niche for them in a tough and mean world with an employer somewhere who will be open-minded and see the ability they have and value them as a person with a lot to give. I wonder how some companies ever survive with the baracuda mentality and inhumane idea that workers are nothing but a means to a “bigger profit” for me. So, we carry on. Just my thoughts on career changes. My last big success story was a man who was living in a homeless shelter, had lost it all, but with PA office of voc rehab. VR supports (me and our placement counselor and a little funding for computer classes, clothes, etc.), his self-efficacy, some skills building,and the guidance and support of our placement counselor (she networks with all the local employers), he is now happily employed for the SSA office, has an appartment, a car and a big, big smile on his face when I see him! He made it with perseverance, hope, and some pushes to think out of the box!

    God bless, and create a blessed day!


  7. Chris Walker makes a critical observation:

    “Because they have 499 more applications and are focused on eliminating people, not hiring them.”

    The hiring process itself results in the failure of businesses to hire good people because the process in most companies does not focus on hiring good people. It is largely focused on rejecting applicants.

    Why is this so? Because the process by definition seeks the largest possible numbers of applicants. HR spends virtually all its time rejecting, because it starts by seeking all the wrong candidates — “More is better.”

    More is not better. More costs some companies their lives.

    Any HR manager with a brain will teach a company’s recruiters to GO FIND a handful of right candidates, not to sit behind a pc and “process” as many lousy ones as possible.

  8. Dear Nick – I am always interested in advice on changing careers because I work with people that are caught up in layoffs and many times they indicate an interest in making a change. As we begin to lay out a plan and discuss networking, research, self-assessment, etc., most of the interest dwindles. People do not relaize that making a change is more than just saying it. There is work to be done to make it happen. The most successful changers are those that network their way into a new field but in my experience most people do not want it badly enough to truly pursue it. Whatever experience you can share regarding success stories is appreciated
    Faith Sheaffer-Polen
    CareerCurve, LLC

  9. Faith, if you google career change you’ll probably come up with real life stories. It’s a favorite space filler especially in hard times.
    The best examples I have come from within companies which offer a base of operation to pave the way aided greatly by the tried & true advantage of people really knowing you, and helping you, and hopefully by a good boss. That doesn’t make if fast and easy…just easier
    I think you’ve nailed it down pretty well. Changing careers is heavy lifting in itself, attempting it in a hurry e.g. trying to combine it with a much needed job & paycheck. And you’ll pay dues. If anyone thinks they can come in off the street and bid for a job in competition with experienced professionals in that vocation they’re smoking something. You have to put something on the table e.g. reduced pay, ugly hours, ugly venue, plus some personal impact e.g awful commutes.
    And equally important, is when have you successfully “changed”. Not just landing a job, but successful recognition of value add in that new field or endeavor.
    These same folks take the same approach to networking, starting only when they need a job, and when they find out what kind of effort & committment it takes, they quickly tire.
    Excuse my language but that old saw that when one door closes another opens can be true, but you need to understand that the hallway between can be a bitch.

  10. Nick wrote: “Do not look for jobs that seem to require the skills you used at your last job.”

    The problem these days is that employers seem to want the exact skills but don’t want to train but want someone else to do and pay for the training.

    Not saying that happens everywhere, but how would one get around that where:

    1.) You are entry level and don’t have previous experience.
    2.) You are not entry level but don’t have all the skills they listed as “required” on their job description and the skill or experience is not something you can just teach yourself? (i.e. special, and possibly out of budget, software, etc.)